Beauty, Meaning, and the Art Establishment:

A Comparison of Hickey and Foucault

“Beauty”—it is hard to imagine that such a simple, commonplace word so inherently tied to art could cause uproar in the very community in which it is used. But this was exactly the case when then-unknown critic Dave Hickey came out with “The Invisible Dragon,” a collection of critical essays on beauty and the art establishment. Turning the word against the art institutions of today, Hickey lamented the loss of the viewer’s individual perception of aesthetics to the universal necessity of a deeper artistic meaning dictated by the most prominent people in the art world. This bold statement caused controversy, for it went against everything art had gained through the discussions of the artistically-educated and well-known philosophers on the constituents of good art. It could be said that the writings of one philosopher in particular, Michael Foucault, were especially at stake, as his arguments on the importance of meaning to art in The Order of Things are on the surface, completely contradicting Hickey’s rants for a return to aesthetic appreciation. However, further analysis of the two viewpoints leads to a surprising potential—that perhaps the opinions of Hickey and Foucault are not so far off in their attempts to change the dynamics of the art scene as a social institution.

Hickey’s argument against the denouncement of beauty in today’s art world begins with the role of beauty. Truly, his argument can be boiled down to the much-used phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” He fervently affirms that beauty allows for a personal, one-on-one experience with the piece of art, and is the sole component that allows for the viewer to create their own, individual thoughts on the piece. Hickey goes on to say that it is the central theory for art criticism, for the pleasure derived from viewing a beautiful artwork is “the only true occasion for looking at anything” and it is beauty alone that allows for the measurement of a piece’s efficacy (Hickey 2). Thus, beauty can be deemed more important than meaning in artwork because it allows the viewer an unadulterated measure of worth.

Foucault, on the other hand, demonstrates the importance of meaning in the first chapter of his essay, The Order of Things. This he accomplishes through a thorough analysis of Diego Velázquez’s painting, “Las Meninas,” using the aesthetic components of the work to argue the true focus of the painting and its significance (Fig. A). It becomes clear to Foucault, then, that the focus of the painting, through the suggested lines of the painting and the gazes of the subjects, is the viewer: “As soon as they place the spectator in the field of their gaze, the painter’s eyes seize hold of him, force him to enter the picture, assign him a place at once privileged and inescapable…, and project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture” (Foucault 444). The significance of this aspect is revealed when one realizes the context in which the painting was created. Classical representation dominated the art scene in Velázquez’s time, and was characterized by the concept of “imitation of nature,” i.e., the representation of objects that existed in the real world outside the artist’s mind (Bate). However, Velázquez begins to break the mold by incorporating the mystery and potential of an invisible viewer as the subject on a concealed canvas, invoking a change in the art world that helped to alter its direction. Through this determination, Foucault implies that it is meaning that is essential to the experience and importance of a piece of art.

However, while Hickey and Foucault appear superficially to embody different viewpoints on art, their perspectives, when taken further, seem to in fact address a similar issue. Deeper than simple aesthetics and meaning, this problem permeates the art world, the ability to obtain an effective artistic experience and the advancement of art. Hickey argues that this issue is embodied in the deterioration of beauty’s role in art experience today. As a main component of art, the beauty Hickey finds to be essential has become obsolete in today’s art world because of the development of what he terms the “therapeutic institution.” This concept is essentially representative of the change in value in the art world from merit-based to a political agenda of governmental, corporate and academic entities. Beauty, an entirely inherent concept, was seen by this “art establishment”—museum owners, critics, the art-educated, funders, etc.—as that which sells art, no matter the influence on it by the establishment. To keep a hold on the art world, the institution brought art into the public sector, feeding the community its qualified opinion that it is meaning which qualifies art as legitimate and beauty which lessens the quality of art. Thus, they essentially gave themselves the upper hand over the general public art-wise with an exclusive thought process, a notion trucker Terri Horton found especially frustrating through repeated denials by the elite art establishment to verify her “Jackson Pollock” (Fig. B). The result of this manipulation, Hickey argues with Horton-esque passion, is a fraud of an art world, a product of the therapeutic institution telling us what to think is “good” art.

To illustrate this corruption further, Hickey actually uses a Foucault-inspired comparison of “bureaucratic surveillance and autocratic punishment” (Hickey 5). Foucault’s logic is that a king, in his demand for certain constants like loyalty, has a cruel but justified punishment for deviation that at least lets the deviant retain his convictions (Hickey 5). Bureaucratic rule, on the other hand, uses its regulatory policies as guidelines that seep unknowingly into the public consciousness, conforming it to its wishes and taking its freedom of interpretation. To Hickey, this Foucaultian logic is a clear illustration of the therapeutic institution’s subconscious attack on public appreciation of beauty and an argument against the art establishment.

Foucaultian concepts again lend themselves to the argument against Hickey’s therapeutic institution in the preface of The Order of Things. It is here that Foucault makes his argument for the necessity of a change in the order of a culture for its advancement. He establishes that every culture has “fundamental codes” that govern “its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, [and] its hierarchy of perception” (Foucault 440). This empirical “order” dictates how people act until a proposed discourse brings forth the construction of a new order, making the old obsolete. It is through this questioning and reasoning that new knowledge is acquired and the culture grows. This is what Foucault demonstrates through “Las Meninas,” that Velázquez’s bold and innovative changes to representation lead to changes in the perception and “rules” of the art world that ultimately bring art theory to where it is today. However, the therapeutic institution of which Hickey speaks threatens discourse on and thus growth of the art community present today. Without the ability to judge art on its beauty regardless of any intended meaning, art as we know it today stays stuck in a rut dictated by so-called art professionals. Thus Foucault’s argumentation solidifies Hickey’s viewpoints on the pitfalls of the current art establishment.

Foucault and Hickey, though coming from different perspectives, work together to raise important criticisms of the art world today. However, what does this ultimately gain for the viewer and the artist? While still under the influence of the therapeutic institution, both are slaves to a narrow, adulterated interpretation of art. Without the ability of an individual experience and uninhibited creation and critique, the art culture is not moving anywhere fast. Nevertheless, Hickey maintains that the “vernacular of beauty” used by effective artists like Warhol will overcome, engaging individuals “in arguments about what is good and beautiful” (Hickey 17). Perhaps the strides made by Hickey and Foucault will bring the culture of art into a time when Warhols can be appreciated for their shocking aesthetics and their nonchalant artistic commentary, a time when art can be art as a meshing of pleasure, meaning, and individual interpretation free of the art establishment.

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. “Prefaces to Criticism.” 27 April 2009. A Theory of
Civilization. <>.

Foucault, Michael. “The Order of Things.” Art and its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic

Theory. Ed. Stephen David Ross. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. 440-454.

Hickey, Dave. “The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty.” Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 2009.


Figure A. “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez

Figure B. Terri Horton’s Jackson Pollock painting


Ann Reves:

I have always really enjoyed drawing but never took an analytical perspective on art. It’s usually a little hard for me to look at things from a philosophical standpoint as a Biology/Pre-PT major, and writing is not my favorite thing to do in the world, but I was inspired by the well-written arguments of Hickey and Foucault to write this comparative analysis of their standpoints on art. I found it interesting that both, in one way or another, critiqued the direction in which the art institution is going today.